Baal Shem Tov - Development As Leader and Challenges

Development As Leader and Challenges

The Besht bettered his condition when he took a position as a ritual butcher in Kshilowice, near Iaslowice. He soon gave up this position in order to conduct a village tavern that his brother-in-law bought for him. During the many years that he lived in the woods and came into contact with the peasants, Israel ben Eliezer had learned how to use plants for healing purposes and to effect wonderful cures. In fact, his first appearance in public was that of an “ordinary” Baal Shem. He wrote amulets and prescribed cures.

After many trips in Podolia and Volhynia as a Baal Shem, Besht, considering his following large enough and his authority established, decided (about 1740) to expound his teachings in the shtetl of Medzhybizh and people, mostly from the spiritual elite, came to listen to him. Medzhybizh became the seat of the movement and of the Medzybizh Hasidic dynasty. His following gradually increased, and with it the dislike, not to say hostility, of the Talmudists. Nevertheless, Besht was supported at the beginning of his career by two prominent Talmudists, the brothers Meïr and Isaac Dov Margalios. Later he won over great and universally recognized rabbinic authorities who became his disciples and attested to both his scholarship and saintliness. These include Rabbi Meir Margolius, chief rabbi of Lemberg and later Ostroha, and author of Meir Netivim (a work of halachic responsa) and other works; Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Hakohen, rabbi of Polnoy; Rabbi Dovid Halperin, rabbi of Ostroha; Rabbi Israel of Satinov, author of Tiferet Yisrael; Rabbi Yoseph Heilperin of Slosowitz; and Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezrich (AKA the Maggid of Mezritch) to whose great authority as a Talmudist it was chiefly due that Besht’s doctrines (though in an essentially altered form) were introduced into learned circles. Noteworthy is that the renowned Sefardic Rabbi Chaim Dovid Azulai (Chida) cites the Baal Shem Tov in his works in great laudatory terms.

Some direct historical evidence remains of the Besht during the days he lived in Medzhybizh. Rosman discovered numerous legal documents that shed light on this period from the Polish Czartoryski noble family archives. The Besht’s house is mentioned on several tax registers and his house is given tax-free status, thus indicating that he was well-known to the Polish Magnate as an important town resource. Several of the Besht’s colleagues in his stories from Shivhei HaBesht also appear in Polish court records, notably, Ze'ev Wolf Kitses and Dovid Surkes. Rosman contends that the Polish documents show the Besht and his followers were not outcasts or pariahs, but rather a respected part of the mainstream Jewish communal life. Medzhybizh at the time was not some backwater village, but a thriving, prosperous, and important community in the Czartorysky estate.

Other direct evidence includes the Besht's daily prayer-book (siddur, owned by the Agudas Chabad Library in New York) with his handwritten personal notes in the margins. His grave can be seen today in the old Jewish cemetery in Medzhybizh.

Over the past few years, the "Agudas Ohalei Tzadikim" organization (based in Israel) has restored many graves of Tzadikim (Ohelim) in Ukraine, including Baal Shem Tov's. A new guesthouse and synagogue is also being built next to the Ohel of Baal Shem Tov.

  • Baal Shem Tov’s shul reconstructed (as a museum); August 4, 2008

  • Ohel of Baal Shem Tov; August 4, 2008

  • New guesthouse and synagogue next to Ohel of Baal Shem Tov (work in progress); August 4, 2008

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